A Durable Mission For The Twenty-First Century

By: Julie Fissinger
Reading Group Participant
Executive Director of the President’s Council
Development and University Relations

As a member of Fordham’s development team for many years, I have had the privilege of meeting with generations of Fordham alumni, who have told a now familiar story of their lives being transformed by their Jesuit education. Often the first in their family to graduate from college, their Fordham diploma opened the world to them, and in turn, to their children. It is because of these compelling stories and witnessing the power of this same transformative education in the students I encounter today, that I am invested more than ever in Fordham’s enduring mission; a mission that retains relevance, appeal, and imperative.    

Founded in 1841 to educate immigrants who were not welcome elsewhere, Fordham has been committed to access and empowerment of the marginalized since its inception. While access and marginalized may be more modern descriptions, Fordham has, nonetheless, held these values close for 175 years. It is this continued commitment, combined with intellectual rigor grounded in the humanities and an emphasis on service, reflection and justice, that arguably make Fordham a modern-day university ahead of its time. 

Furthermore, Fordham’s location in the Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, doesn’t afford an “ivory tower-ish” approach to social justice, but rather it provides opportunity. The poor and oppressed are right outside of our gates. I think we all agree that we can and we should do more to ensure equity, including more outreach to our immediate community, reforming curriculum and teaching, and addressing cost. Whether studying science, business, or the humanities, student formation is at its best and the most powerful when rooted in the cause of the human family. Thankfully, the building blocks, beginning with Catholic social teaching on the dignity of the human person and the paramount of the common good, are in our toolbox.   

This past semester I had the privilege of being a member of the ReIMAGINE Reading Group, which caused me to think more deeply about our mission, how it connects to equity and how we must continue to hold Fordham to its mission. It also made me more observant and mindful of the wider higher education landscape, especially during this most recent and challenging chapter. Would students thrive in online learning? Would faculty and administrators remain focused on their work?

I believe many would agree that if Fordham has a “super power” it is our sense of community; a community that is immediately tangible to visitors and newcomers. However, if community is our super power, how does that strength translate in a pandemic? As it turns out, we learned that community is also our saving grace. Certainly our students missed gathering for class, as well as for senior week and commencement, and faculty and staff missed waving hello to one another on campus, grabbing coffee and having lunch together. Yet, it is the sense of community that sustained us, gave us the will to move on, and find a way forward. Fordham’s community is a product of its mission, a notion that we are companions with a higher purpose. In fact, new mental health research on wellness and happiness reveals the importance of gratitude and generosity, two staples of a Fordham education, leaving other institutions trying to emulate and catch-up to where we’ve always been.

As we look ahead, let’s challenge each other to fortify that Fordham difference, leaning into mission, rather than away from it, and allowing it to propel the University into the future; a future that hungers for a deep and purposeful education infused with Ignatian values, and with a goal of making the world a more just, equal and loving place. At this moment in time, what more could we need and ask for?

The Virus Is Not The Crisis

By: Diane Detournay
Reading Group Participant
Lecturer, English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

In a semester marked by the radical unsettling of higher education’s foundational infrastructure, members of the ReIMAGINE Reading Group reflected at the last meeting on how the reading and discussions it shared together, prepared everyone for the immense challenges of this time in unexpected ways. While we could not have anticipated the abrupt closure of our classrooms and the loss of the familiar conditions that structure teaching and learning, our efforts to expansively “reimagine” undergraduate education to better serve our students suddenly and urgently needed to be put into practice. As one member of our group eloquently put it, “all of a sudden the future we were talking and reading about was here.”

Although conversations about the current state of higher education tend to cast the coronavirus as the source of the crisis and as the principal force to contend with, the work of the Reading Group points us towards a different framing, which I also see opening up spaces of possibility. Along these lines, the pandemic is best understood not as a discrete event that precipitates marginalization or as itself the agent of harm, but rather as that which exposes and amplifies a set of already existing crises at the site of the university. For example, we grappled with a range of issues prior to the online transition ranging from the student debt crisis, the inadequate support for universal design, the deprofessionalization of teaching, the casualization of academic labor, the disjuncture between disciplinary training and the demands of the job market, issues pertaining to diversity, and the intensification of inequalities pertaining to college preparedness.

The Reading Group also reflected on how the stories that we share regarding the founding and mission of the university deeply shape the ways in which we apprehend these problems and our potential imagining of the future.  The words of Katheryn Yusoff resonate here: “…nothing that can be found in the end is not already prefigured in the origin. Origins configure and prefigure the possibility of narratives of the present.”

As a result, I return to the collective insights from the Reading Group at this critical juncture when we are working to creatively stretch the potentialities contained within the hybrid flex model as far as they can possibly go. Amidst the ongoing tragedy and its ruins, the pandemic has also provided a clearing to seize these struggles as the defining condition of higher education. The ReIMAGINE Reading Group has compelled me to challenge the predominant framing of the pandemic as a crisis that has disrupted a status quo and as one that primarily demands medical, technological, and scientific management. Rather, perhaps we understand this moment as one that offers us the opening and opportunity to imagine a future world from an origin marked by crisis.  

Spirituality, Gratitude, and Love: Potent Healers In Uncertain Times

By: Carol Gibney, LMSW
Reading Group Participant
Associate Director of Campus Ministry for Spiritual and Pastoral Ministries
Director of Spiritual Life, Leadership and Service
Ignatian Yoga Teacher

Deemed once again Ground Zero, New York has experienced tremendous hardship and pain as a result of the pandemic. The effects – mentally, physically and emotionally – have been devastating, as we hear reports from those on the front lines of unimaginable suffering and death. COVID-19 has indiscriminately destroyed and disrupted lives, and the shock and trauma has impacted all of us in so many ways. However, despite the disruption and emotional distress, our Fordham community has continued to move forward, quickly integrating into zoom classrooms, blackboard postings, and other modes of communicating and connecting, that prior to March, we never imagined we would be offering. 

In this time of social distancing caused by COVID-19, I have been re-reading the book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola, by Dean Brackley, SJ, which has had a tremendous impact on me and the work that I do as a campus minister at Fordham. This book has offered sage and wise offerings throughout the years, and suggests the importance and necessity of daily spiritual practices, while belonging to a community that not only supports us and challenges us to stay faithful, but also nourishes us in our alternative vision and practice.

Since lock down, I have been contributing to a text message chain every morning with a group of women. We call ourselves the Soul Sisters and our friendship has spanned over thirty years. The day begins with messages that include three things that we are grateful for each day, and this simple practice has helped me dive deeper into the attitude of gratitude that I try to integrate into my work as a campus minister.

With that being said, when I joined the ReIMAGINE Reading Group in January, I was grateful for the opportunity and viewed it as a way to collaborate with colleagues from across the university who were dedicated to their work as educators, committed to the mission of our university, and guided by Ignatian values. What I didn’t know at the time was that this initiative would be a gateway and a stepping stone for the entire university to immerse itself in reimagining higher education once the pandemic hit. 

Throughout the spring semester, the Reading Group discussed the history of education, as well as explored the privilege and inequity in higher education. I believe it is our job as a university to open the eyes and hearts of students to the reality of inequity and inequality, and in the world of a pandemic, I think it is even more important to study and reflect on these issues, causes and potential solutions, especially since New York is our campus.

As a result, I intend to continue reimagining my work as a campus minister in the 21st century, in addition to dreaming, brainstorming, and creating meaningful pathways for students, faculty and staff to connect with the Ignatian heritage and principles. I envision the post-quarantine world will crave deeper relationships with community, spirituality, and love, and in spite of the suffering and instability caused by the pandemic, it is an exciting time with many possibilities that were not even on the horizon or possible just a few months ago. New Yorkers are strong. We recognize and value diversity, creativity, and inclusion, and we come together in tough times with an unstoppable sense of hope and community. Us Rams are tough, just look at our Fordham educated Governor.

In the meantime, stay healthy, stay strong, stay in love, stay home and stay grounded. I look forward to connecting in the future. Namaste. 

Disruptive Forces Trigger Productivity

By: Sharif Mowlabocus
Reading Group Participant
Associate Professor, Communication & Media Studies

Health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are (to say the least) disruptive forces. The eerie silence of Times Square and Lincoln Center masks the chaos that the virus has brought to daily life in New York. Meanwhile, the human and economic cost of the Coronavirus will not be fully known for months, if not years. But crises of any kind are also productive. They produce new forms of social control; they produce new social norms and cultural practices; and they can even produce new ways of thinking, including how we learn, teach and train.

Set against the human impact of the virus, it might feel wrong to contemplate how we might benefit from this global pandemic. At the same time, requests for things to ‘go back to normal’ ignore what the pandemic has exposed, not to mention the social, economic and health inequities many students and staff face.

For example, when Fordham suspended face-to-face instruction, some students shifted seamlessly to asynchronous learning, Zoom classes and the more atomized educational experience that remote teaching invariably produces. Yet, others struggled to balance their studies with caring for siblings and relatives (some possibly in the healthcare industry), supplementing their household’s income, or even living with abusive or substance-dependent parents. The pandemic did not create student inequality, but it has underscored the emotional, financial and psychological burden some students carry on their shoulders as they attend classes, work on assignments and do the various other things that students are expected to do.

As a member of the ReIMAGINE Reading Group, we spent the first half of the spring semester sharpening our understanding of these burdens, while exploring the latest scholarship on diversity and inequality in higher education. Collectively, this work explored three distinct but interrelated challenges:

  • the economic and social challenges that some students face coming into higher education,
  • the challenges of updating higher education for the 21st century,
  • the challenges that students face upon graduation as they enter the world of work.

In the second half of the semester, the pandemic prompted us to test our learning and to reimagine higher education. Responding to the Provost’s call for ‘creative and resilient approaches to delivering a Fordham education’, the group collaborated on a suite of proposals designed to support learning in a post-COVID environment. Our previous engagement with scholars such as Cathy Davidson, Anthony Abraham Jack and Jeffrey J. Selingo, meant we rejected the ‘return to normal’ mindset. Instead, we saw this as an opportunity to design new modes of learning that challenge normative methods of instruction and advising, which can often be methods that privilege the mainstream at the expense of more vulnerable and marginalized students – and faculty.

From team-teaching and new community-focused core courses, to a re-fashioned advising program and regional Fordham ‘meet-ups’, the ReIMAGINE Reading Group embraced the chaos caused by COVID-19 and used it as a chance to prioritize the kinds of changes Davidson and others have been calling for. In doing so, we were able to re-invest in the Jesuit principle of Cura Personalis and reimagine how Fordham can continue to invest – but also bring the out the best – in its students, its faculty and in its staff in the 21st century.

The ReIMAGINE Reading Group has been a transformative experience for me, irrespective of the global pandemic. This has been my first year at Fordham and the Reading Group has connected me with colleagues from across the university; people who I might otherwise not have met for a long time, if ever. Through my interactions with the rest of the group, I have been able to gain a deeper understanding of the values upon which Fordham is built, its philosophy and its mission. I have also witnessed the genuine commitment many at Fordham have to ensuring that we continue to evolve and challenge ourselves as we work to deliver a meaningful, equitable and ethically-focused educational experience to our diverse body of students.

Facing the Future

By: Samir Haddad
Reading Group Participant
Associate Professor, Philosophy

One of the lessons we’re already drawing from the COVID-19 crisis, is that as an institution and a society we need to be better prepared for the future. The rapid and positive response of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to completely change the way that Fordham operates has been truly impressive, but we’ve also learned that we were woefully unprepared for this event. We’re now all under pressure to plan and be ready for what lies ahead us, even as so much of the future remains so uncertain.

I believe that this planning and preparation is absolutely essential, but I worry about the effects it may have on all of us engaged in the mission of education. We are understandably afraid of what the future of the pandemic holds, and we need to do our best to make sure that the worst possibilities in that future are held at bay. We need to change our policies and actions so that we are protected against the damage that the pandemic can do – damage to our bodies, to Fordham, to our community, to the economy, to our democracy, to the very fabric of our society. But I worry that this fear of the future of the pandemic becomes a fear of the future as such. I worry that in our fear we will become focused on being in total control of everything in the future, on trying to anticipate every possible event and every eventuality.

I worry about this because fear of the future is fundamentally an anti-educational attitude. Everyone involved in education – students, teachers, staff, and administrators – must love the future and welcome it with open arms. And central to this love is a willingness to be surprised. The best educational experiences occur when something happens in the classroom that we had no idea was coming, when someone says something completely unpredictable, so that everyone in the room, the teacher included, learns something new. Education is all about preparing students for the future, but without all of the protections, so that they will chase it and embrace it. An education that does not love the future and is afraid to be surprised by it, is hard to imagine as an education at all.

So as we continue to reimagine higher education – something the crisis is forcing us all to do – I hope that we can balance the fear in our minds with an equal measure of love. 

A Community That Stays Connected

By: Allison Pfingst
Reading Group Participant
Administrator and Advisor, Fashion Studies Program

Connection is a word that has come to take on tremendous meaning during the COVID-19 crisis. We are increasingly worried both about the effects that a lack of internet connection and of personal connection may have on ourselves and our students, as this pandemic shows few signs of slowing down. 

Yet as we face these serious concerns about the tenuousness of our connectivity, I am seeing it grow and strengthen before my eyes. It is taking new and meaningful forms that I believe, if we maintain them, will make Fordham stronger and more flexible than it has ever been.

Faculty are taking on the work of colleagues that are facing the challenges of full-time quarantine childcare. Father McShane’s thoughtful prayers, that he sends out via email, provide comfort to us all, regardless of faith. Professors who struggled to turn on their classroom projectors are now Zooming regularly with their students.

Every single member of the Fordham community has been thrust outside of his/her comfort zone. And every single member of the Fordham community is compassionately working across all boundaries of department, office, and position to ease these transitions on us all for the greater good.

If we can maintain that openness and solidarity and direct it towards the ideas that are forming in the ReIMAGINE Higher Education groups, there is truly no limit to what we can accomplish. Interdisciplinary programs that are funded, nimble, and fully supported by the departments? Easy. Food and housing security for all of our students? A no brainer. Courses that integrate the work of our fabulous Student Services teams? Of course! All of it is possible if we continue to work together in the way that we have during this crisis.

That’s a tall order.
It’s a little lofty.
It’s a little beyond the call of a school or a workplace.
It verges on preachy.
But that’s exactly what I’ve always loved about Fordham. It has always challenged its community to go further. It has never been enough to just be a good student or a good employee. Fordham expects you to be a good person, a man or woman for others. 

2020 is a new world that will require a new education, and I’m looking forward to watching how the Fordham community takes on that challenge together.

Reflecting on Cathy N. Davidson

By: Christopher Gu
Reading Group Participant
Director of Academic and Financial Operations

In the first part of the ReImagine HigherEd Speaker Series, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education, speak to a packed house in Bepler Commons last Tuesday. Davidson, the Founding Director of The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center, spoke about how crucial it is to revolutionize the current higher education model, which is simply not sustainable with rapid technological and generational shifts. This is the focal point of the work that both the ReImagine HigherEd Reading Group and the Incubator Group are doing this semester.

Davidson divided her presentation into three parts: Inheritance, Disruption, and Restructuring. The current model of higher education still bears many of the ideas that Charles Eliot, Harvard’s longest serving president in the late 19th Century, outlined in his own manifesto, the original The New Education. This rise of higher education coincided with the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. Many of the ideas, such as the A-F grading system, majors and minors, credit hours, and multiple-choice examinations were all born out of this era. We have essentially inherited these rituals, without making much advancement over a century later.

With the rising cost of college, the heavy burden of student debt, and increasing technological advances, it is imperative to disrupt the traditional model of higher education in order to make college more accessible and relevant. We have talked in the ReImagine HigherEd Reading Group about how a college education needs to prepare students for careers that may not even exist yet!

Davidson talks about how equality must be at the core of the new structures that we design. She challenges us to think about restructuring the academic reward system. What if research, teaching, and service were all weighted equally? For students, how can we structure the curriculum for more active learning and participation? Davidson, who has spearheaded interdisciplinary programs at both Duke University and CUNY, believes that the STEM subjects and the liberal arts can go hand-in-hand in the classroom. Learning does not have to be limited to the singular subject matter; in real life, problems cut across multiple disciplines and students need to be able to think critically and holistically.

Having just finished reading Cathy N. Davidson’s book and after seeing her presentation, I could not agree more with the urgency of which this work of reimagining and restructuring needs to be done. In The New Education, Davidson spotlights the work that specific colleges are doing to advance higher education and I look forward to the work that our own ReImagine groups will be producing in the coming months to share with the rest of the Fordham community.